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Liberty Bowl culmination for Rice, Mississippi State seniors

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Of the 23 Rice seniors playing their final game in the Liberty Bowl on Tuesday, 19 of them had been with the program for five years.

As the seniors traveled to Memphis on Thursday afternoon to try to become the first Rice team to win bowl games in consecutive years, it’s a natural time to reflect on how far the football program has come.

For three-and-a-half of those five years, it was difficult to picture anything resembling a conference title or consecutive bowl trips. The Owls won just two games in 2009 and 4 in 2010 and 2011. A lousy 2-6 start to 2012, lowered the record to 12-32 since the 19 fifth-year seniors enrolled at Rice.

What happened next can be called a turnaround, though perhaps that isn’t a strong enough word for it. Rice is 15-3 in its last 18 games, including a bowl victory and Conference USA title. At the heart of the transformation is the seniors. Rice Coach David Bailiff said the seniors have brought the team together.

“There’s great chemistry right now at Rice,” Bailiff said at a press conference earlier this month. “Our number one goal was getting to the Liberty Bowl. Our second goal was to lead the world in chest bumps and high fives. We’re going to have fun playing this game.”

Rice and Mississippi State square off on New Year’s Eve. Kickoff is 3 p.m. CST. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Bailiff said the will of the seniors to end with a win on both sides should make this a fantastic bowl game.

“I’m excited about this game as any game this year,” he said. “We have a physical football team. We’re more athletic than people realized going into it. That’s because of senior leadership. Young men have invested four or five years of their lives to the program.”

Rice is led offensively by fifth-year seniors Taylor McHargue at quarterback, and Charles Ross and Turner Petersen at running back. McHargue threw for 2,261 yards this season and 17 touchdowns. Ross led the C-USA in rushing with 1,292 yards on the ground. Petersen ran for 278 yards and caught 26 passes for 348 yards. Several fifth-years seniors helped lead a much improved Owls defense.

Defensive end Cody Bauer shook off injuries to finish strong with six tackles for losses in the last four games. Cornerback Phillip Gaines allowed just 13 completions all season, on his way to first-team, all C-USA honors again. Safety Paul Porras recorded 76 tackles to crack the top 10 in that category in the school record books. Senior Chris Boswell will go down as the most prolific Rice kicker in school history.

A 56-yard field goal against Kansas on Sept, 14 was Boswell’s 13th made kick of 50 yards or more. He won the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Week three times this season and has been invited to play in the Senior Bowl.

Mississippi State has a dozen seniors on the roster. By winning its last two games in overtime to become bowl eligible, the Bulldogs seniors are doing something no other Mississippi State class has accomplished.

"Making it to four straight bowls has never been done at Mississippi State,“ Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. "Everyone in the program are guys I’ve recruited. They believe in what we’ve been trying to build here. To see that consistent success they’ve had throughout there career is pretty special."

Senior LaDarius Perkins is second on the Bulldogs with 542 rushing yards. Senior defensive back Nickoe Whitley leads Mississippi State with 5 interceptions, in addition to 55 tackles and 7 pass breakups. Senior linebacker Deontae Skinner is second on the team with 61 tackles. Senior punter Baker Sweedenburg has 7 punts of more than 50 yards, and six of his punts have landed inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.

Mullen said Mississippi State’s goal is to win a conference championship like Rice.

“To do that, you have to have consistency and stability,” Mullen said. “A great senior class of leaders can put you in a position to win a championship.”

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